Word reached me late yesterday that Gilbert Stork had died. His most recent paper was published just last month in Org. Lett., and included what will surely become a famous footnote in the chemical literature.
22. A plan for conversion of 33a to 1 was (with various deprotections/protections) C4-CH2OH to C4-CO2H, followed by Barton’s conditions to change C4-CO2H to C4-OH. . .At this point, we realized that we did not have enough material (a few milligrams) to go through the several steps for this conversion. One would have to restart the whole synthesis. But I (G.S.) am now 95 years old…
Prof. Stork was one of the great organic synthetic chemists. He was born in Belgium and came to the US in 1939 when his family emigrated in the nick of time, and got his PhD at Wisconsin in 1945. He took a position at Harvard the next year, and moved to Columbia in 1953, where he stayed for the rest of his career (which is equal to the rest of his life – Stork became an emeritus professor, but as that above example shows, he never truly “retired”). Here’s an overview (PDF) of his career in organic chemistry from the Baran group at Scripps, and even if you’re not in the field, you can imagine that in over fifty solid years of high-level work you can cover an awful lot of ground. He was one of the last links, perhaps the last, to the heroic age of organic synthesis. All those famous names from the mid-20th century? He knew them; he was one of them.
Stork did total synthesis of natural products, taking on very hard problems and solving them elegantly. I think it’s fair to say that R. B. Woodward’s achievements and reputation always cast some shade in his direction, but there are very few others in his league. Prof. Stork also made a number of contributions to mechanistic understanding of reactions, and added no small number of transformations of his own to the list. Enamines, silyl protecting groups, radical cyclizations, stereospecific synthesis in general – his fingerprints are all over these and more, all of them fundamental classes of compounds and operations in organic synthesis.
And he was always a gentleman – this article will get across some of his personality. Stork’s wit was well known, but you never hear stories of it being used maliciously (and if you haven’t heard that of other famous chemists, you should be more familiar with the history of the field!) One of the words that comes to mind when discussing him and his work is “grounded”. Stork had a very clear idea of what chemistry was good for and what it could contribute, but at the same time he knew that it was not the only worthwhile thing in the world. Here’s a quote from him on organic chemistry in general:
“The toughest question to ask in synthetic organic chemistry after the work is done is: what have you learned? And you can have extraordinarily complex things. They look complex as hell. Maybe they have 80 asymmetric centers and maybe the answer is, [you’ve learned] nothing. I mean, you could have learned that humans are capable of enormous focused efforts and are capable of sticking with a problem which is extraordinarily complicated. On the other hand, if somebody makes polyethylene, as somebody obviously did, then you learn a lot, even though it will not thrill most synthetic chemists because this would be comparable to building a highway for an architect. I mean, it’s important, but it’s fairly dull compared to [building] the Guggenheim Museum, for instance… ”
I also very much agree with his philosophy of trying out ideas and reactions, which applies to a lot of early-stage drug discovery research as well:
“If it’s neither explosive nor toxic, you should try it no matter what people tell you about it. It’s one or two steps, why not?”
Yes, indeed – and his relative lack of the sin of pride comes through in that quote as well. Prof. Stork leaves behind a huge legacy; chemistry students will be learning things that he taught us for a long, long time to come. He also trained a long list of chemists in his academic career, and considered this one of his greatest accomplishments. He did what he did extremely well, he led a long and productive life, and I would guess that everyone who knew him is sorry to hear of his passing. It would be hard to wish for more.